Re: [xmca] University & Conformity

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at>
Date: Sat May 24 2008 - 10:25:13 PDT

Modern UniversitieS and their Problems

Here is a small contribution to the enormous topic introduced by Erik and
commented on by Michalis. Just a couple of preliminary comments for
historical context and some observations about typical educational
interactions in my university.

When I attended the University of California in the late 1950's the
university was open to the top

10% or so of high school graduates as measured by grades and was essentially
free; no tuition, minimal feels. A high percentage of the University budget
(I am not sure of the exact amount) was paid for by the state from taxes
including property taxes and state income tax which was relatively
progressive. Families had to be wealthy enough for their kids not to work
and many students lived at home and commuted; many worked part time. But
economics played a *relatively* small role in affordability of university
(inequalities, of course, existed in quality of education that got students
into the top 10%).

At present 12% of the budget of UC is covered by state funds. Property taxes
have been severely

capped. The degree of progression in income taxes is flattened; sales taxes
and lottery money are a larger part of the state budget. Students pay high
fees that make attendance almost impossible for

many and hours of work while attending so high that serious study is
difficult to achieve for all but the most academically talented and
determined. I worked about 20-25 hours a week to be able to

attend University. Many students are working 3-40 hours.

Observation #1: Courses are a mixture of large lecture classes that now are
conducted primarily using power point presentations and large textbooks,
middle size (40-60 student classes) that may use a text or original
readings, and seminars, that rely on original readings. This observation is
devoted to large lecture classes that dominate the social sciences. Many
lectures are now available as podcasts and technologies linking power point
and podcast are being tried out.

In the social sciences (I am speaking here from direct experience, practices
in other parts of the university differ according to subjects matter)
multiple-choice questions, often using scantrons for rapid machine grading
are the norm. It is almost always the case that students will ask, in class,
if material presented before the mid term will also be included on the final
exam – the implication being that they consider the material to be

As co-author of a textbook in human development I was REQUIRED to permit the
company to create a multiple-choice test bank, in computerized form, that
included "hard, medium, and easy" questions on every point tested on. (This
work was done by academics in relatively low ranking universities who needed
the extra money and, in principle, monitored by my co-authors and me).

The result of this kind of educational regime is the production of students
who are expert at reading texts for the multiple choice questions they will
generate. Students in a seminar I conducted while

revising the text, who were asked to criticize the text and look into
contemporary research on the materials contained in the existing edition
routinely criticized those passages in the text designed to explain why an
issue was important or to provide historical context for a line of
theorizing or empirical study. As seniors, the entire focus of my teaching
was on seeking to re-orient them to meaning making and critical inquiry.

As a result of this kind of experience I have instituted a number of
interventions to break up the

memorize-and-forget orientation of the students. This is a topic of its own
which we can get into

if there is interest.

Observation #2. In the Communication Department there is a senior seminar to
insure that students get at least one "small" class (up to 25). On the first
day of this seminar I ask students to write down the courses they have taken
previously as they approach graduation, the name of the instructor, and the
main topic of the course (They have quite variable course histories that I
try to take into account in organizing instruction). Routinely, students
are unable to remember either the names of instructors or the content of
their prior courses. But they remember the Catalogue numbers of the courses.
Why? Because their interactions with staff about graduation requirements are
coded by those course numbers and they are filling in the blank numbers,
waiting for their list of graduation requirements to be filled.

Observation #3. I am currently teaching a middle size class (40) in which
students are required to present the readings to the class. Routinely, they
use powerpoint to organize their presentation. They then read from the power
point. The power point slides are a combination of bullet points that are
"copy matches" of lines of the text and quotations from the text, sometimes
with what they consider key points in red or some attention-grabbing format.
Students sitting the class, who I have insured have read the text by asking
a simple question about its main idea at the start of every class, sit and
listen as if they understood. But neither the presenters nor the students
(nor I) can understand the presentation because it is entirely a surface
level repetition in which relevant and irrelevant facts and words the
student do not understand are mixed in a jumble. They do not recognize when
the word

"university" is substituted for the term "universal" which is key to a
reading. They cannot explain what possible relationship the words
"universal" and "university" might bear, one to the other.

There is much more to what follows in this class as I seek to get students
to interrogate the article and their own power point presentations, to
explore the meanings of key terms they have copied from the text but cannot
use in a meaningful sentence, and to help them link what they are reading to
their own prior experiences. Again, a topic in its own right.

Provisional conclusion: At the level of classroom teaching/learning activity
students in the social sciences at my university are being socialized into a
form of alienated, mystified discourse that they are certain has nothing
whatsoever to do with the realities of their everyday lives or anything
outside of the mystified discourse itself. This form of education is not
the result of intellectual limitations of the student body. It is the
manifestation, at the level of classroom teaching/learning, of the same
sorts of phenomena that Erik and Michalis have discussed at the level of the
university system as an institution. I do not believe the problems are
restricted to UCSD, or UC.


PS—In my view, ideally, the university should represent a form of social
intelligence for society. This implies both the need for autonomy a la
Bologna and for critical engagement with society, e.g. a theory/practice
methodology as a macro-social practice.

On Sat, May 24, 2008 at 4:15 AM, E. Knutsson <> wrote:

> Dear Michalis,
> Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You refer to the neo-liberal educational
> reforms in Europe, in which the 'dysfunctionality' of the university is the
> main argument used by neo-liberal politicians in order to "convince the
> public
> opinion that competition between universities and evaluation, free market
> of
> knowledge, commercialization of education etc. are the only existing
> possibilities towards broader national development, progress, etc."
> You seem to prefer or emphasize a (Marxist?) class perspective, but I doubt
> that Marxist(oid) explanatory models can illuminate the problem of
> (subcultural) conformism.
> Historical experience seems to suggest that universities could gain from
> keeping more distance to the political field. The University of Naples was
> never very distinguished; the University of the Roman Couria was worst of
> all,
> because it was too close to the pope. The "provincial" Bologna epitomized
> the
> extreme vitality of twelfth- and early-thirteenth-century European society
> – a
> rapid rate of demographic and economic growth coupled with considerable
> political dislocation and disorganization.
> As summarized by Le Goff, "Academics . . . sought to define themselves as
> an
> intellectual aristocracy, endowed with . . . [a] specific morality and code
> of
> values". For this intellectual "nobility", nothing was more important than
> autonomy.
> Eric.
> On 2008-05-23, at 13:02, Michalis Kontopodis wrote:
> > Dear Eric,
> >
> > I cannot resist commending your ideas: at the moment a neo-liberal
> > educational reform is taking place in Europe--which I experience at
> > two different sites: Germany (centre, where I work) and Greece
> > (european periphery, where I come from).
> >
> > The 'dysfunctionality' of the (public) university is the main
> > argument, which neo-liberal politicians use, in order to convince the
> > public opinion that competition between universities and evaluation,
> > free market of knowledge, commercialization of education etc. are the
> > only existing possibilities towards broader national development,
> > progress, etc.
> >
> > In this context, the upper classes of Greece & Germany which are
> > mainly represented in the university (as well as in other state
> > institutions) seem to lose their privileges and turn into either
> > normal workers (short term contracts, less security etc.) or into
> > managers of research centers (much more profit, than ever before).
> >
> > At the same time, students mainly from middle social classes (not
> > legal or illegal migrants, not workers) protest for maintaining the
> > free public educational system, academic freedom etc.
> >
> > The university in (West) Germany and in Greece has never been indeed
> > revolutionary. In its best times it represented the development of
> > middle class and supported its establishment by means of state
> > politics, funds, long-term working contracts etc. Exams, notes,
> > certificates etc. have been the tools that supported this
> > establishment and attributed a lot of authority to university as an
> > institution. The division of theory & praxis, the disciplinary
> > knowledge and the abstract and universal way science views the world
> > as a meaningful whole have also been important characteristics of this
> > development.
> >
> > Taking under consideration that no university existed in the medieval
> > mediterranean space, and the particular character the university has
> > gained after the French Revolution, I would argue that: from the very
> > beginning of capitalism or of modernity the European university had
> > the above-mentioned internal contradictions which are expressed in a
> > very particular way in the context of contemporary neo-liberalism,
> > globalisation etc.
> >
> > I would be very happy if the university would be re-territorialized
> > and connected to pioneer social praxis and am sure that educational
> > cooperations between schools and universities, community education and
> > other programs (see: Cole, Hedegaard & Chaiklin, M. Gibson etc.),
> > social and political anthropological projects etc. can be seen as
> > examples of how such a social praxis would look like.
> >
> >
> >
> > Michalis Kontopodis
> >
> > research associate
> > humboldt university berlin
> > tel.: +49 (0) 30 2093 3716
> > fax.: +49 (0) 30 2093 3739
> >
> >
> >
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Received on Sat May 24 10:26 PDT 2008

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